Great Moments in Alternate History: Charles Babbage

In real life, Charles Babbage was a relatively unknown inventor who pioneered early computers. In modern alternate reality fiction, Babbage is a mad genius and steampunk icon. Here are some authors who resurrected Babbage's career a century later.

Great Moments in Alternate History: Charles Babbage


Welcome to Great Moments in Alternate History, a column that covers all the great moments in history that could have happened but didn't, from the assassination of Andrew Jackson to the Beatles 1976 reunion concert on SNL. This week we examine Charles Babbage and the many 19th century computers he could have built.

In our timeline Charles Babbage (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an inventor, mathematician and scientist who toiled in relative obscurity in the 19th century petitioning for funding and materials to build early mechanical computers from a British Parliament that only vaguely understood his ideas. Alternate history Charles Babbage, however, has had quite the illustrious career. After receiving the proper funding and working through a few lingering mechanical difficulties Charles Babbage has managed to become an alt-history Steampunk staple.

Great Moments in Alternate History: Charles Babbage

In William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, Babbage perfects his works sometime in the 1820's and with the help of Lord Byron, father of Babbage's real life friend and collaborator Lady Ada Lovelace, Babbage heads a Radical Industrial party to electoral victory ushering in a Victorian information age. Britain sets about building more powerful computers the only way Babbage knows how, by making them bigger and powering them with steam. By the time the narrative of The Difference Engine picks up England has created analytical engines that are the size of several city blocks. These gigantic computers create a vastly more powerful British Empire that ruthlessly exploits its intelligence advantage. Predicting the threat of a unified American continent Britain splits the U.S. into several smaller empires including an independent California and a briefly referenced Communist Manhattan run by Karl Marx.

However, The Difference Engine is far from Babbage's only exciting alternate life. In fact, the creation of any of Babbage's theoretical engines proves to be a watershed moment in alternate history. The moment he turns one of those suckers on anything can happen, from a secret society that uses his computers to foresee and guide history to Babbage robots with analytical engines for brains.

There's also practically an entire sub-genre of Babbage/Sherlock Holmes fiction. After all who could put a Babbage engine to more dastardly use than the mad genius Moriarty? And who better to protect it than Sherlock Holmes, the only detective smart enough to understand what the hell Babbage was talking about? Prime examples include Moriarty by Modem by Jack Nimensheim where Babbage himself created the two geniuses as programs and The Future Engine by Byron Tetrick where Moriarty gets his hand on a prototype Babbage engine and begins using it for nefarious purposes.

Great Moments in Alternate History: Charles Babbage


More lighthearted than most, and a personal favorite of mine is Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage, a webcomic featuring the two pioneering computer scientists teaming up to fight crime, while it also serves as a great historical primer on the real life Lovelace and Babbage.

Top illustration by Sydney Padua.